A Pair of Boots

Many years later I felt much the same joy and pride of ownership when I bought a pair of magnificent hiking boots in London. I felt too, the same sense of despair when I came home with a blister on my heel the first time I used them on a hike! I learnt later to wear two pairs of socks, or even a pair of ladies knee-length nylon stockings under one’s normal thick socks.. However, it takes some courage for a bloke over six foot high with size 11/12 boots to enter a ladies hosiery and ask for such a pair of nylons to fit him!

This is how it happened.

Of all the equipment available to the hiker, a pair of good well-made and comfortable boots is the most important – you can only enjoy walking to the extent your feet will allow. My first purchase was a pair of stout shoes which I thought I could use as ‘everyday shoes’ as well as for hiking. The shop assistant assured me that Piet Koornhof, at that time Minister of Bantu Affairs, only used that type of shoe for playing golf, but I do not think that influenced me to buy them. They did not last long, soon becoming pushed out of shape and over trodden at the heel – the result of walking across steep slopes in the Drakensberg. I then bought a pair of hiking boots – beautiful soft leather but the type I selected were much too light and soon fell to pieces. I did not, in fact, select them but bought them because they were on a sale and cheap. In Pretoria there is a shop that sells second-hand army supplies, including boots. There is a great heap of boots, sometimes tied together as a matching pair and some-times loose. Most of these boots are pretty far gone, but every now and then you come across a good pair. Suddenly a brand new size 11 boot caught my eye, but I could not find its mate. I asked the African attendant to put the boot aside for me and see if he could find the other one in that enormous heap of boots. Some days later I returned and sure enough my African friend had found a boot for me – the only thing was that it was not quite new! So, I came home with one new boot and one not quite so new boot, but, being only about R5 the poorer, was well satisfied.

I had some good hikes with this oddment. The only thing was that my feet seemed to slide backwards and forwards inside the boots so that I developed a strange type of blister under the balls of my feet – it felt as if I was walking on fine gravel.

Finally the uppers came away from the soles and, besides, most of the other hikers had proper hiking boots with Vibram soles, so why not me?

So I bought, also on a sale, a pair of, to me expensive, imported hiking boots with Vibram soles that fitted me, though perhaps a little narrow across the foot. I had such a guilty conscious at this extravagance that I hid them from my wife in the boot of my car! The theory being that, at the price, they were a good buy and worth putting away until my army boots gave in completely. I kept them in the boot of the car and walked them in on Smuts Koppie near Irene in the evenings. I had many good walks with those boots but they were always a bit narrow. Every time we resumed walking after a tea or lunch break, it was a case of: “Look out, feet! Here I come!”

Believe it or not it was not long before the uppers of these boots came adrift from the soles. A craftsman in a well-known repair shop in Pretoria was disgusted to find the uppers had never been sewn but merely stapled to the soles. He sewed them properly for me, and I still have them. Although some eyelets have pulled out and the toe has worn through, these boots are not too bad.

It was my very good fortune to go to England in 1980 soon after the terrible riots in Soweto. I was aware things in the UK were expensive, but made up my mind I would allow myself the one extravagance of buying a really good pair of hiking boots. I had a copy of ‘Nicholson’s Guide to London‘. This is an incredible publication. It tells you where you can get anything you care to mention, for example: There is a “crisis page” for such things as who to phone when “Home late and locked out“, “Starving at 4am”, “when your dog is lost”, and much more.

In Nicholsons I found under “SPORTS EQUIPMENT — CAMPING AND MOUNTAINEERING, BOOTS FOR ALL PURPOSES“, the entry “James Lawrie Ltd, Alpine Specialists, 35 Seymour Street, Marble Arch, London”. So, with my sister-in-law as guide, I set off to buy me a pair of boots. We found Seymour Street after a while, but there were no obvious shops in it, merely a row of Georgian houses. Coming from Johannesburg and Pretoria I expected to find a shop with plate glass windows and a large sign outside “JAMES LAWRIE LTD., ALPINE SPECIALISTS”. The Guide Book clearly stated “Number 35 Seymour Street” so we tracked this number down, and there sure enough was a sign, just above the door handle but it was only about 9 inches square! It was just after three when we got there but the door was firmly locked. I couldn’t believe this was really the place to buy hiking boots, and with great trepidation rang the bell. After a suitable interval the door was finally opened by a very refined well spoken, grey-haired lady. Apologetically, I enquired if this was the right place to get hiking boots,

“Yes, we do have boots. Please come in“. We entered the vestibule with beautiful mosaic flooring and an old-fashioned hat stand complete with mirror, a place for walking canes and suitable ornate hooks for coats and hats-and a door mat, of course!

Miss Lane ushered us into what could have been the drawing room – it was as if we had called for afternoon tea – but to my relief I saw boxes of boots on shelves and I knew I was at the right place.

I know when you buy hiking boots you must obviously wear the thick socks you would normally wear when hiking. These I had on together with the veldskoen ‘Wuppertal’ boots with motor car tyre soles I had used in South Africa to walk in while in England, knowing that, however good boots might be, it is foolish to walk in new ones. Well, here I was in London in a small Georgian house specialising in hiking and climbing boots being served by a genteel elderly lady. I had never before experienced anything quite like this and was fascinated. Seating herself at my feet Miss Lane enquired what she could do for me. I told her what I wanted, at the same time removing my veldskoens, kicking them under the bench to hide them. Poor veldskoens, they did look so out of place and far from home in 35 Seymour Street, London!

Miss Lane exclaimed: “Good heavens! What are those?”

“They are my Wuppies. They have rubber tyres for soles, and are very comfortable”, says I.

Picking them up


rather gingerly, Miss Lane examined them with interest. Her face lit up!

“Well I see they are double stitched so they must be quite good!”

Pulling out her foot callipers Miss Lane began to measure my feet in order to get on with the business of the day. At this stage, I began to fear the price of boots would be quite outside my range and in order not to waste anybody’s time asked Miss Lane what sort of price I would be expected to pay. With great charm she got up and took me to the display and showed me the range of boots and their prices. Yes, I thought I could afford the price, and the measuring of my feet proceeded.

At this stage a second very refined little old lady appeared. She looked so frail to me that I simply could not imagine her to be the sort of person likely to be selling hiking boots.

“Miss Lane, would you like me to take over as I know you are very busy with other things?” My face must have shown some trepidation: I could not believe this charming frail lady could possibly know anything about hiking boots.

“Thank you, Mrs Lawrie! I am going to hand you over to Mrs Lawrie, the owner of the shop. You will be in very good hands with Mrs Lawrie – there is nobody that knows more about boots than she does”. Mrs Lawrie, whose husband was bed ridden, told me that Miss Lane had been an experienced Alpine climber.

The measuring continued and then Mrs Lawrie went upstairs to fetch a pair of boots for me to try on. They were beautiful, with that lovely satisfying smell of leather that I love so much. In fact when I pass a saddlers shop I often go in just to enjoy the smell of leather.

I began to lace up the boots when Mrs Lawrie stopped me.

“No, not like that. You make the mistake most people make, do not take the ends of the laces and pull towards you. That breaks the laces. Keep your foot at right angles to your leg, preferably on a stool or something then tighten the laces across the boot pulling downwards towards the floor. Here, let me show you. Most men are surprised how much strength I have in my hands and wrists. Now get up and walk around the shop for a bit”.

I am very conscious that boots must not be too short, because it can be agony to walk down a steep mountainside with your toes crammed into the front of your boots. The boots I had on were too short.

“That’s strange”, said Mrs Lawrie, “Let me measure them again, but first I will get my own callipers. I don’t really like Miss Lane’s pair. No, there is no mistake with the measurement, however I’ll get you another pair”.

While Mrs Lawrie was out of the room I noticed on the floor a rather large pair of boots which looked to me unusual. – Picking them up I read on a tag tied to an eyelet: “Dr Raymond Green – Everest l933″. The boots were beautifully made with thick leather soles into which hobnails had been driven. Along the edges of the soles were crampons to prevent slipping. While looking at these boots Mrs Lawrie returned.

“If you find those interesting come and see these”, and she produced a similar pair of boots with a tag “Sir Edmond Hillary. Everest Expedition l953″.

James Lawrie Ltd had made the boots to measure for Sir Edmond on that famous and successful ascent of Everest, and on his return he had presented the boots back to the Lawries. The only difference was that his boots had the modern Vibram soles in place of the old hobnails. I remarked on how light the leather seemed to be, because normally hiking boots are fairly heavily padded around the ankle. Mrs Lawrie explained that the boots were in fact made with two layers of leather with possum fur sewn in between. This apparently is very warm indeed and the ideal combination for boots. The sale of boots to me was now set aside and Mrs Lawrie showed me a pair of boots in the process of being made so that I could see the construction. I forgot to mention that while this was going on my sister-in-law Joannie was patiently sitting in an armchair, reading a book. Mrs Lawrie told me a pair of handmade boots made to measure would cost about £l50.00 but one would have to wait 2 or 3 years for them because it was difficult to get experienced craftsmen. Sad to relate, the Bootmaker’s Guild in London had ceased to exist because there were so few real craftsmen left.

Well, back to my boots. I had tried on several pairs; a couple of hours had passed and Joannie was still waiting patiently for me. I was intrigued and fascinated by the whole experience of superb personal specialized attention.

The infallible test it seems, is to lace the boots on properly and tightly, then stand with your heels on something raised like the wooden fender of a fireplace with your toes pointing downwards. The floor was by now littered with boots when suddenly I found a pair that seemed to be right, perhaps a little narrow across the foot. At this stage a third lady appeared on the scene. She advised me, a little irreverently I thought, to place a broom handle” in a vice and then to stretch the boots by working them on the handle.

The boots were pretty hard and stiff. I remember experienced climbers telling me it sometimes took as long as a year to walk boots in properly before they were really comfortable. I asked Mrs Lawrie the best way of “breaking in” boots saying that I had read somewhere that a good idea is to fill boots with hot water for a few minutes, then to pour out the water and immediately put them on, using the thick socks normally worn for hiking, and to go for a walk until the boots dried on the foot. What did Mrs Lawrie think of this? Mrs Lawrie, whom I imagine could never be rude to anyone, with a look of alarm on her face drew herself up and said:

“Mr Millin, when a customer leaves this shop with boots we expect the boots to fit properly. No, I would not advise using hot water – I have never heard of that. For waterproofing a little wax polish rubbed well in helps. The secret is to apply a little often with plenty of elbow grease“.

All that was now left was the distasteful business of paying for them. When telling the story to someone afterwards, I was asked whether or not I had actually bought the boots. My reply was:

“After an experience like that, in those genteel surroundings, it would have been sheer bad manners not to have purchased the boots! “

The boots were carefully wrapped and tied with string leaving a loop convenient for carrying. (Funny, one seldom sees that these days.)

Later, while staying in London, I went for a walk every morning early in Regent’s Park. Within two minutes in Regent’s Park, you lose sight of the vastness of London, you feel as though you are away out in the country, except for the high post office telecommunications tower. I didn’t really feel foolish walking around Regent’s Park in an enormous pair of hiking boots – one sees many strange things in London! At home I softened the boots with wax polish, filled them with hot water, in spite of Mrs Lawrie’s comments, and worked them on a broom handle. Then used them on a hike in the Magaliesberg. They were admired by several of my companions.

I can still feel the chagrin, the despair and feeling of utter disappointment when on that first hike I developed a large blister on my heel. But still I was not too worried, because they did fit across the foot, and after all, I did go on to make a lot of runs with that first cricket bat my father bought me!

The boots turned out to be tremendous and very comfortable. Boots of such high quality and good workmanship, that a man could feel great pride in ownership, and even enjoy just looking at them.

Only one thing did I completely overlook and that was weight or mass – the boots are so heavy that I am exhausted after only a few kilometres!

The mountaineer’s prayer keeps me going.

“O Lord! You pick ‘em up!

I’ll put ‘em down.”

With this Divine assistance I enjoyed many wonderful hikes in those James Lawrie Ltd boots, but there came a time when I had to reluctantly admit they were too heavy and that my ageing legs would prefer lighter ones. However, James Lawrie did his duty to the end as my grandson found them excellent to wear when riding his scrambler motor bike over rough mountain terrain. I do not know where the boots finally came to rest.


Story by Peter Millin



Leave a Reply